By Don Simpson | December 5, 2013
Directors: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Just over a decade ago, Lenny Cooke was a stand-out high school basketball player destined for the NBA; some scouts even considered him to be a better player than LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, Cooke’s contemporaries. Thirteen years have passed and Cooke has vanished from basketball altogether. Cooke never made it to the NBA, he never even played college ball; instead, he floundered around in semi-pro and foreign leagues for a while, until injuries got the better of him.
With their documentary Lenny Cooke, directors Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie passively observe Cooke’s rise and fall. They do not necessarily try to explain why Cooke’s life took such a drastic turn for the worse, though Lenny Cooke does suggest that a lot of factors were at play, such as the NBA draft’s nefarious relationship with high schoolers and Cooke’s overconfidence and laziness; but probably the biggest blow to Cooke’s NBA chances was his inability to play during his senior year of high school due to age limitations (Cooke turned 19 midseason — because he held back multiple years due to academic ineptitude — deeming him too old to play in his home county in New Jersey). By the same turn, the Safdie brothers try not to comment too much on Cooke’s present day circumstances — though scenes of him arguing with his wife and getting drunk do not paint him in all that favorable of a light — the sole purpose of the current day footage is to reveal just how far the mighty has fallen.
Like so many high school athletes, Cooke was just looking for some quick cash. He was seeking the American dream of making a lot of money in exchange for very little effort. It is hard to ignore that Cooke’s questionable personal decisions and poor work ethic in school played a significant part in the self-destruction of his future. Above all, Lenny Cooke stresses the importance of academics when it comes to success as an athlete — though, the question remains, should academics really be so intrinsically bound to athletics?
In their narrative films, the Safdie brothers have shown a strong interest in characters who do not live up to their potential, and Lenny Cooke is essentially the real-life version of their fictional characters. Cooke might be a bit more empathetic than most of Safdie’s fictional protagonists, but it is tough to feel too sorry for someone who sabotaged their own future.